Due to the nature of the work performed in sterile processing departments (SPDs), SP technicians are often required to perform physically demanding tasks for prolonged periods of time. As a result, there is a high probability they will develop a work-related musculoskeletal disorder (MSDs) or other injury. Such injuries can be attributed to a lack of attention to ergonomics in the work environment, equipment layout, employee movements, and other factors.
The importance of appropriate ergonomics in the workplace has never been more important and plays a vital role in employee satisfaction, retention, recruitment and productivity. Unfortunately, this issue has repeatedly been overlooked and undervalued by many healthcare organization leaders, (administrators, departmental managers and supervisors) and it is costing organizations and their employees dearly. Workplace injuries cost businesses billions of dollars annually. In 2021, the National Safety Council estimated $167 billion was paid nationally for work-related deaths and injuries and contribute to many lost workdays. A work environment that manages ergonomic issues proactively can reduce and, in some cases, prevent injury, while also reducing costs for the organization.
Many SPDs across the country are outdated and lack the appropriate equipment to accommodate the work SP technicians perform. This includes working in cramped, inefficient spaces that often are not set up to allow for safe, efficient workflow and ergonomic practices. These conditions not only jeopardize employee safety and satisfaction but can also affect patient safety. Safety risks posed by unsafe working conditions can include musculoskeletal injuries and strains such as back, shoulder and neck pain [chronic lower back pain, tension neck syndrome, trapezius myalgia (neck and shoulder pain), rotator cuff impingement]; falls from slippery floors, especially in decontamination; eye strain; and the development of carpal tunnel syndrome, among other injuries.
Injuries can result from prolonged static posture and poor positioning, repetitive movements and heavy lifting, suboptimal lighting, mental stress, physical condition and age, and genetic predisposition. Symptoms of MSDs can present as decreased range of motion, deformity, diminished grip strength and muscular function. Fortunately, risk factors for developing MSDs are preventable if the right steps are taken.
Ways to prevent employee injuries
To avoid employee injuries and demonstrate a commitment to the health of staff members, it is essential that SP leaders implement ergonomic principles into their workspaces. Practical strategies can include budgeting for height-adjustable equipment, such as sinks, tables and computer stations, to reduce the need for excessive bending, reaching or stretching. Height-adjustable workstations allow employees of stature to position themselves at a comfortable height or angle to prevent excess physical strain.
Other strategies include incorporating sit-to-stand stools that encourage employees to alternate between sitting and standing positions (as appropriate, depending on the task). Equally important and effective is ensuring employees receive proper training that encourages correct posture, lifting and body mechanics. Further, SP leaders should evaluate lighting to ensure it is adequate in all areas of the department (in my consulting experience, I see lighting overlooked frequently). Adequate lighting intensity directly correlates with a more productive, safe work environment. Lighting needs will vary according to the various light sources already installed in the ceiling, and some workspaces may require more or less lighting to ensure each task is performed optimally. Good task lighting should always be prioritized for each work area to ensure proper inspection and production. SP leaders must also be aware that older employees may require additional accommodations to prevent workplace injuries, strain and discomfort, although every employee should be protected and prioritized when establishing an ergonomics plan.
Good ergonomics is good for business, and SP leaders (and any other healthcare department leader) must manage employee health and safety proactively and effectively. Because there are obvious costs associated with this undertaking, leaders should consider the full financial picture when asking for support to improve ergonomics within their departments.
According to a Liberty Mutal Study from 2002, the financial implications are twofold: the direct cost (dollars associated with a workplace injury) and indirect costs (lost productivity, overtime, staff time involved in accident investigation and recordkeeping, replacement costs, administrative overhead, product damage, and possible increase in insurance premiums). The study also found that for each injury an employee sustains, the indirect costs far exceed the direct costs. In fact, more than half of executives spanning numerous industries report that for every dollar of direct cost, they are spending two to five times that amount in indirect costs. Sharing the true costs with administrators will often help SP leaders implement an ergonomic program more quickly.
SP leaders and their organizations must find an acceptable balance between setting realistic budgets and ensuring enough capital is allocated to promote employee safety and mitigate preventable injuries. One solution is to make a one–, three– and five-year capital budget plan. This effort takes time but pays big dividends when considering not only current and future organizational and departmental strategic plans but also the day-to-day employee and departmental needs.
Poorly designed and insufficiently equipped workspaces in the SPD can be extraordinarily challenging in today’s fast-paced healthcare environment. Ergonomic work areas, when budgeted, designed and implemented thoughtfully, can significantly reduce work-related injuries caused by repetition, strain and overexertion during routine tasks.
By making ergonomics a priority, SP leaders and facility executives will demonstrate a strong commitment to employee safety, while increasing staff satisfaction, comfort, productivity and quality—all of which benefits the customers and patients served.